Though China’s middle class has grown exponentially and tens of millions have been lifted out of poverty, the super-elite in Shanghai and other east-coast cities have steadily pulled away. Income inequality has also increased in developing markets such as India and Russia, and across much of the industrialized West, from the relatively laissez-faire United States to the comfy social democracies of Canada and Scandinavia. Thomas Friedman is right that in many ways the world has become flatter; but in others it has grown spikier.
Levels of wealth
After a down year in 2008, the top 25 hedge-fund managers were paid, on average, more than $1 billion each in 2009, quickly eclipsing the record they had set in pre-recession 2007.
If you look at the original movie Wall Street, it was a phenomenon where there were men in their 30s and 40s making $2 and $3 million a year, and that was disgusting. But then you had the Internet age, and then globalization, and you had people in their 30s, through hedge funds and Goldman Sachs partner jobs, who were making $20, $30, $40 million a year. And there were a lot of them doing it. I think people making $5 million to $10 million definitely don’t think they are making enough money.
‘You know, the thing about 20’”—by this, she meant $20 million a year—“‘is 20 is only 10 after taxes.’ And everyone at the table is nodding.”
In 1916, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent.
In an op-ed in TheWall Street Journal last year, even the economist Klaus Schwab—founder of the World Economic Forum and its iconic Davos meeting—warned that “the entrepreneurial system is being perverted,” and businesses that “fall back into old habits and excesses” could “undermin[e] social peace.”
The lesson of history is that, in the long run, super-elites have two ways to survive: by suppressing dissent or by sharing their wealth. It is obvious which of these would be the better outcome for America, and the world.
Community life of the New Global Elite
The real community life of the 21st-century plutocracy occurs on the international conference circuit.
The best-known of these events is the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, invitation to which marks an aspiring plutocrat’s arrival on the international scene. The Bilderberg Group, which meets annually at locations in Europe and North America, is more exclusive still—and more secretive—though it is more focused on geopolitics and less on global business and philanthropy. The Boao Forum for Asia, convened on China’s Hainan Island each spring, offers evidence of that nation’s growing economic importance and its understanding of the plutocratic culture. Bill Clinton is pushing hard to win his Clinton Global Initiative a regular place on the circuit. The TED conferences (the acronym stands for “Technology, Entertainment, Design”) are an important stop for the digerati; Paul Allen’s Sun Valley gathering, for the media moguls; and the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival (co-sponsored by this magazine), for the more policy-minded.
Recognizing the value of such global conclaves, some corporations have begun hosting their own. Among these is Google’s Zeitgeist conference, where I have moderated discussions for several years. One of the most recent gatherings was held last May at the Grove Hotel, a former provincial estate in the English countryside, whose 300-acre grounds have been transformed into a golf course and whose high-ceilinged rooms are now decorated with a mixture of antique and contemporary furniture. (Mock Louis XIV chairs—made, with a wink, from high-end plastic—are much in evidence.) Last year, Cirque du Soleil offered the 500 guests a private performance in an enormous tent erected on the grounds; in 2007, to celebrate its acquisition of YouTube, Google flew in overnight Internet sensations from around the world.
Yet for all its luxury, the mood of the Zeitgeist conference is hardly sybaritic. Rather, it has the intense, earnest atmosphere of a gathering of college summa cum laudes.
The most potent currency at this and comparable gatherings is neither fame nor money. Rather, it’s what author Michael Lewis has dubbed “the new new thing”—the insight or algorithm or technology with the potential to change the world.
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